by Shanaka Jayasekara
Foreign policy of a country is formulated to advance the national interest and achieve the best possible outcome. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka foreign policy is not determined by national interest but by irrational interest.
If we accept the notion that the government’s blueprint for overall policy making is the Mahinda Chinthana, then our foreign policy is based on cliché phrases such as non-aligned, free and progressive
(Chinthana page 98).
As Niccolo Machiavelli points out foreign policy is a realist agenda to safeguard and advance the national interest of a country.
Sri Lanka has been muddling through reactionary ad-hoc policy decisions without having a strategic objective and a clearly defined goal. Sri Lanka foreign policy needs a strategic direction so that the resources invested in foreign affairs can generate positive outcomes to advance the national interest of the country.
PART 1 – INDO-LANKA RELATIONS
a) Look North India Policy
The metamorphosis taking place within the Indian political landscape needs to be better understood when framing Indo-Lanka relations. The dominant role played by national political parties is fast diminishing with regional parties holding the balance of power in most often coalition governments. The regional parties in Tamil Nadu will continue to rekindle the separatist ideology for Sri Lankan Tamils as a cheap political platform.
If we look at past political trends, Tamil Nadu regional parties will influence Union government policy including foreign policy on Sri Lanka given they command the balance of power in coalition governments. It is imperative that Sri Lanka counter balances the Tamil Nadu influence by developing political and economic relations with North Indian states. Regional political parties in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal also have regional parties with a stake in coalition governments. Other North Indian states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and South Indian states such as Kerala are not caught up in the Chola-Dravindan ancestry and tend to be far more understanding and moderate on Sri Lankan issues. It is in Sri Lanka’s interest to offer economic and trade preferences to North Indian states to build strong relationshipsas counter weight the Tamil Nadu influence. Sri Lanka needs to establish Consulate General offices in the above North India states and actively promote economic engagement.
b) Provide Clarity on Sino-Lanka Relations
Perceptions are important and it is necessary to understand that India has concerns over what is sees as an encirclement strategy by China known as the ‘string of pearls’. Irrespective of Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is not in a position to participate in any geopolitical adventure with the Chinese. At present there seems to be a subtle inference of a ‘Love-triangle relationship’ in which Sri Lanka feels it can benefit from the new bi-polar order emerging in Asia. The late President J. R. Jayewardene’s experience should serve as a reminder that the island of Sri Lanka, ‘for better or for worse’ is geographically located within the Indian sphere of influence. It is essential that Sri Lanka provides clarity to the Chinese relationship. While Sri Lanka has a right to maintain close economic relations with China, it must be made clear that Sri Lankan soil will never be used for any strategic purpose against India. Providing clarity to this issue will take the wind out of the sails of the irritant conspiracy theorists that tend to undermine Indo-Lanka relations on a regular basis.
PART 2 – EXTERNAL THREAT REDUCTION
a) Post-War Image Building Exercise
The media strategy of the government remains trapped in a pre-2009 mindset that associates everything ‘Tamil’ with terrorism. There has been a significant shift in global opinion on the Sri Lankan issue since 2009 consequent to an aggressive media campaign by the pro-LTTE groups overseas. These groups have redefined the narrative in the post-2009 period and the Tamil demand has shifted focus from all that the LTTE was, to an anti-Rajapaksa agenda. The pro-LTTE diaspora groups learnt lessons from the Arab Spring and the armed revolutions in Libya and Syria. The Arab Spring idealized armed resistance as long as it targeted a dictatorship. In fact, western journalists were embedded with armed resistance groups following their successes. So while the Sri Lankan government media strategy was to simply link the Tamil diaspora activity to LTTE terrorism, the pro-LTTE diaspora groups were focusing all the attention on President Rajapaksa and undermining his credibility and his international standing. The media strategy of the pro-LTTE diaspora groups was to tarnish the Rajapaksa image as a war criminal. As long as international media portrays President Rajapaksa as the primary nemesis, an armed rebellion can be justified using the revolutionary logic. The key objective of this strategy is to launder the LTTE and its violent past through the new paradigm of armed revolutions against dictatorships. Therefore, the pro-LTTE groups will continue to target President Rajapaksa’s image.
There is no doubt that the valiant victory of the Sri Lankan security forces on the ground has been impressionably reversed internationally on the diplomatic front. At present the ‘front and centre’ of our image building exercise internationally is President Rajapaksa. We are walking straight into the LTTE trap. The reality is that the President is popular at home, but internationally he is attracting negative publicity and this strategy is counterproductive. If you look at the last three years, apart from three ceremonial meetings with Barak Obama (UN General Assembly Reception), Julia Gillard (CHOGM Perth) and David Cameron (Queens Diamond Jubilee Lunch), the President has only had three bilateral summits (South Korea, Chile and Turkey) with any leader of an OECD country. If we take the G8 group the President has only had one bilateral summit (Russia). If we look at the G20 group the President has had just five bilateral summits (China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia). The only group that is receptive to this approach of image building is the Shanghai Cooperation countries with bilateral summits with most members and observers (China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan), but that’s preaching to the choir.
There has to be a realisation that international diplomacy is not undertaken in the same manner as domestic political theatrics. In domestic politics, the President’s endorsement will help win elections, but this strategy is futile in the international domain. Presidential advisers on foreign policy need to understand that the current approach of ‘photo-opportunity diplomacy’ is superficial and prone to debacles that re-energize the pro-LTTE lobby. On three occasions the Sri Lankan leader was ill-advised and faced public embarrassment and humiliation—the first was the Oxford Union debacle in December 2010, the second the ICC Cricket World Cup final in India in April 2011 and the third the Commonwealth Business Council meeting debacle in June 2012.
(The Writer is Lecturer, Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT) Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)